Once an outlaw, now just a geezer
By Michael McCall
SEPTEMBER 22, 1997: Everything about David Allan Coe looks tired except for his eyes, which still flash with menace. Slumped in a padded executive's chair in an unlit record company board room, this scandalous country singer who experienced his heyday over two decades ago has grown gray and saggy with age. He looks every bit of his 58 years.
"If I knew I was going to live this long, I probably would have taken better care of myself," Coe says without a smile. "I just wasn't the kind of guy who was going to look 30 years down the road. If I had, maybe I wouldn't have done some of the crazy things that I did that make me wonder why I'm still alive."
At a time when country music is accentuating clean-cut images and relentless sensitivity, especially in its male stars, Coe might seem the least likely candidate to be extended an opportunity from Music Row. After all, he's one of the last remaining vestiges of the mid-'70s outlaw movement, which flouted every polite convention upheld by the country-music industry. Even so, he was one of the first artists Sony Music recruited when it recently decided to start Lucky Dog Records, a new label designed to capitalize on the growing alternative-country movement.
Musically, Coe's old-school Southern rock may have little in common with the acts gaining attention in the Americana format. But when it comes to antisocial imaging, none of the swaggering, dirty-mouthed louts from the insurgent-country camp can hold a candle to Coe, who has shown a remarkable ability to turn aggressive offensiveness into a self-promoting career plan.
These days, Coe is still trying to keep up his image as country music's most infamous bad-ass. His sleeves are cut off, and the front of his shirt is unbuttoned to his navel, all the better to see the colorful, intricate work of a Texas tattoo artist who recently covered up Coe's old jailhouse ink drawings. Multicolored beads sway on the braided ends of his long goatee, elaborate earrings dangle from his head, and several heavy, Indian-style necklaces pile up on his chest. His gray, thinly frizzled locks still cover his neck, although he has given up the waist-length hair extensions he took to wearing in the late '80s.
Coe may lack the imposing presence he once had during his heyday, but he's still not above making a few outrageous comments. "I heard in a movie one time, `You need to get in touch with your feminine side,' " he says. "Well, I've always been in touch with my feminine side. I've never been afraid to show that. I'm genderless, more or less." This from a man who has a spider tattooed on his genitals in such a way that its legs extend as his penis grows erect; a man who once recorded X-rated albums with titles like Little Susie Shallow Throat and Don't Bite the Dick; a man who once passed out T-shirts to his touring staff that read, "David Allan Coe Road Crew--No Head, No Backstage Pass"; a man quoted in Michael Bane's 1978 book, The Outlaws, as saying, "Almost every musical superstar there's been since Elvis Presley has been some kind of motherfuckin' faggot."
Despite those words, or maybe because of them, Coe has remained a popular draw on the concert circuit, where he regularly fills large clubs with an unlikely mix of college students, bikers, and rednecks. In addition, his various greatest-hits packages, all of them in the million-selling range, continue to sell well year after year. Lucky Dog offered the singer a chance to combine these two successful vehicles: The label suggested he record his first live album and pack it with crowd favorites.
Live: If That Ain't Country opens with "Talkin' to the Blues," in which Coe snarls, "Some folks call me trouble, they say that I'm bad news." Trouble is, the ominous baritone Coe once sported has disintegrated into a reptilian whisper. Rather than coming across as dangerous, he sounds instead like Kermit the Frog doing a bad Jack Palance imitation. As a result, he's only able to lend a wan sense of irony to such songs as "The Ghost of Hank Williams," "Desperate Man," and "When I Was a Young Man." This is the sound of the last dying breath of the old outlaw movement, and Coe's weakened voice only helps to underscore the outdatedness of the sentiments in such standards as "Long-Haired Redneck," "Son of the South," and "Willie, Waylon and Me."
Coe did perform around town, becoming a regular at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and the old Linebaugh's. He became the subject of a colorful article written by Jack Hurst, then the country music reporter at The Tennessean and now a veteran staff member of the Chicago Tribune. Record producer Shelby Singleton read the article and signed Coe to a contract, putting out a couple of derivative blues-rock albums on the SSS and Plantation labels. Once the outlaw movement started to stir, Coe found his natural niche: After all, he had spent nine years in the Ohio State Penitentiary for robbery and possession of obscene materials. He owned something that elevated him above most other outlaw singers--he had an honest-to-God criminal record.
Well, mostly honest. Early on, Coe liked to tell how he'd spent three months on Death Row after he killed another inmate who had made sexual advances toward him. The story got repeated for years--Coe even wrote about it in his premature autobiography, For the Record. Eventually, however, a news reporter for a Dallas television station decided to call the Ohio State Penitentiary while preparing a story on Coe. He found out that there was no record of Coe ever killing anyone. Rolling Stone both corroborated the reporter's story and elaborated on the holes in Coe's tale.
For his part, Shelby Singleton said, "I always figured David's stories were about 92 percent bullshit, but it made for good promotion."
The more intriguing question about Coe remains his choice to focus so much of his creative energy on writing songs that tout his sexism, his racism, and his criminal past--not to mention the endless songs in which he positions himself as one of the leaders of the outlaw movement and as an heir to the entire country-music tradition. At times, he has proven capable of truly good work: After all, he did write Tanya Tucker's hit "Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)" and Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It." But in the end, Coe's reputation as a bad-ass seems to have superseded any talents he has shown--although, as his new live album and his interview comments suggest, he's no longer even capable of keeping up a threatening veneer.
These days, the once avowed polygamist lives alone and travels without the large entourage that once shadowed his every move. Jody Lynn Coe, the last and longest-lasting of his wives, left him last year. "She just woke up one day and decided she didn't want to be married anymore," he says, showing emotion for the first time during the interview. "I'm a single man, running up and down the road trying to make a living. It's hard to live like I do and have a relationship with anybody. It's a very lonely thing."
David Allan Coe plays Friday at Mainstreet in Murfreesboro.
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